The thing that is unique to Disney's 2002 "Return to Never Land" is that it may have been the studio's final cartoon sequel to hit the big screen. Since the advent of tape and disc, the folks at Disney have been doing mainly direct-to-video sequels to their big animated features, and I understand this one started out that way, too. But somebody at Disney saw the potential for "Return to Never Land" in theaters, and it did relatively well there. Considering that the movie more than doubled its budget in box-office receipts and that this is its second DVD release, I'd say Disney have gotten more than their fair share of profits out of it.
Anyway, the more important thing is whether it's a good film or not, and here I'm afraid "Return" is no more than ordinary. Put it this way: It's a good animated movie compared to the studio's direct-to-video sequels, but not so good compared to their best theatrical efforts. Nevertheless, youngsters, especially those familiar with the original "Peter Pan," will probably find this sequel colorful enough (and brief enough at only seventy-three minutes) to hold their attention quite well. Adults, however, may find it simply more of the same.
Author James M. Barrie set his play "Peter Pan" in his own period, the early twentieth-century (the first production in 1904). For "Return to Never Land" the Disney filmmakers (co-directors Robin Budd and Donovan Cook and screenwriters Temple Mathews and Carter Crocker) moved things ahead a generation to London during the Second World War. Wendy (voiced by Kath Soucie) has grown up and had children of her own, one of whom, twelve-year-old Jane (Harriet Owen), refuses to believe in the tales her mother tells of a far-off, fantastical island filled with pirates and adventure. Needless to say, Peter (Blayne Weaver) and his Lost Boys have not changed at all during this time, remaining perpetual youths, nor have the villainous Captain Hook (Corey Burton) and his crew of dastardly cutthroats changed at all. At least, Wendy doesn't believe until Hook kidnaps her, takes her back to Never Land, and Peter has to rescue her.
In terms of plot and characters, there really isn't much new here, except the cast, of course, since many of the original voice actors had passed away after fifty years. The new voice talents attempt to sound like the old characters, and they're fine, especially Blayne Weaver as Peter. Still, they're not quite as expressive or as memorable as the originals, although that may be nostalgia speaking.
"Return to Never Land" is more obvious and more sentimental than the first movie, with updated songs more suited to a Disney after-school special than to a theatrical release. The war-torn London scenes are rather depressing, young Jane is hopelessly unsympathetic, and Peter is more smug than ever. Moreover, an octopus unaccountably replaces the alligator as Hook's chief nemesis. While these were conscious decisions on the part of the filmmakers, I can't say I agree with them.
Once Peter rescues Jane from Hook's clutches, which happens early on, there isn't a lot left for the plot to do. Moreover, the story has little forward momentum and even less humor, being primarily a flat series of slapstick encounters and melodramatic pathos that never comes to life or grabs one in any particular way.
So there you have it: Jane wants to go home; Hooks wants his treasure back; Tinker Bell wants to keep her light on; and Peter just wants to have fun and never grow up. Then the movie has an ending that goes on forever, followed up by seven minutes of closing credits.
In any event, there are always bright spots in any Disney film. The animation carries this one, being good, even if it isn't great. We can depend on Disney animators for their usual detailed backgrounds and well-defined character drawings. OK, it feels slightly one-dimensional, but that may because we're all getting used to 3-D CGI graphics.
"Return to Never Land" is sweet, homogenized, and harmless, sort of like its music. I doubt that most viewers will even notice the movie's five songs: a reprise of "Second Star to the Right" and then "I'll Try," "I Don't Believe," "So To Be One of Us," and "Do You Believe in Magic."
There is no doubt the movie is lovely to look at; it just hasn't much substance to it or much new to say.
The Internet Movie Database says that Disney studios released this film theatrically in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The movie's keep case says it appears on disc at a 1.66:1 ratio. Yet it shows up across my 16x9 television at 1.78:1. Take your choice. Whatever the screen size, the video presentation is excellent, thanks to an anamorphic transfer and a high bit rate. Cartoons usually always show up well on disc, and when they are as relatively new as this one and the print is still in such good shape, you get impressive results. We find strong, bright, rich colors and deep black levels, plus crisp definition. It's a pleasure to watch.
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 sound realistically immerses the listener in the aural experience, with amply dispersed surround sound and a wide stereo spread. Here, you'll also get robust bass and dynamics and a reasonably potent impact. Although the sonics are a tad forward and sharp in the upper midrange, this quality nicely emphasizes dialogue through any other ruckus going on.
For a special new "Pixie-Powered Edition, there are meager pickings in the extras department. First up are two deleted scenes in rough form, with filmmaker introductions. Actually, they are more filmmaker intros than deleted scenes. Second is "Tinker Bell's Challenge Game: Quest for the Light," for youngest children only. And third is a series of three brief "Magical Fairies Moments": "Rosetta & the Flower," "Iridessa & the Lightbugs," and "Tink & the Bell." This is mainly a four-minute promo for another Disney direct-to-video release.
Then there are twenty-six scene selections; Sneak Peeks at eleven other Disney titles; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The keep case comes in an embossed, metallic-coated cardboard slipcover.
"Return to Never Land" looks terrific, but as with so many Disney animated sequels, it fails to live up to the enchantment of the original. In this instance it seems like a lukewarm, watered-down recounting of everything we've seen before. Yet, for kids there is always magic in any Disney cartoon, and this one has enough color and movement probably to keep them entertained for the film's duration.